The past few years has seen the explosion in training for alactic conditioning — short duration explosive power.
Ask most trainers who follow fad training trends and you’ll be told to do HIIT workouts or do get out there and bust your ass with sprints.
And these DO increase your cardio, specifically your short duration explosive cardio — specifically your anaerobic pathways.
There are three energy systems (metabolic pathways) your body uses to produce ATP (energy) that powers your body:
- Alactic Anaerobic system (short duration energy – 10 seconds)
- Lactic Anaerobic Systems (medium short duration energy – 60-90 seconds)
- Aerobic System (long term energy from oxygen breakdown- hours)
All three of these systems have two components: power (rate of ATP that can be supplied) and capacity (how long ATP can be supplied). I’ve introduced these energy systems in a post already (if you haven’t read it, I recommend you DO — this article may make a lot more sense).
Training for explosive power, which is highly popular in virtually every strength and conditioning corner, emphasizes ball to the wall, maximal or near maximal heart rate training for very short durations (4 to 60 seconds) followed by a rest long rest period is to increase anaerobic power.
The idea here is to train at max capacity for short durations and take long (or depending on the program, short) rest periods between each interval.
And without a doubt, anaerobic training provides a lot of benefits. But with the corresponding rise in anaerobic training methods, there has been a corresponding vilification of aerobic training as being ‘less efficient’ or ‘less effective’ than anaerobic training.
It’s true that aerobic training is often time-consuming — sometimes very much so. Instead of banging out a workout and ‘crushing it’ in 10 or 20 minutes, you often spend 30, 40, or even 90 minutes doing low-intensity volume work.
There are better ways to train coaches will tell you. More efficient ways.
Aerobic training is, some will tell you, a complete waste of your time for many sports and your overall ‘fitness.’
Or is it?
Not so in fact. And there’s a lot of research now that’s saying the opposite: aerobic training is just as important as anaerobic training — and in some cases, more.
Aerobic energy is arguably the most important part of the conditioning equation and the foundational base for your fitness (read my huge post about the importance of the aerobic energy system)
You see, having a strong aerobic base also improves your anaerobic fitness too.
And to understand why you have to realize there are in fact two components to anaerobic energy: anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity.
Anaerobic capacity is defined as the maximal amount of adenosine triphosphate resynthesized via anaerobic metabolism (by the whole organism) during a specific mode of short-duration maximal exercise (source).
Anaerobic power reflects the ability of the adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine (ATP-PCr) energy pathways to produce energy for muscle contraction. This system is depleted quickly and is used for short bursts of intense power output. (source)
The Importance of Anaerobic Capacity in Sports
Athletes with very high anaerobic alactic power can produce a lot of energy for a very short period of time — that time being between 2 seconds and 10 seconds.
Examples of Alactic Power without Capacity: Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, 100-meter sprints, high jumpers, etc.
The problem here is that many athletes, coaches, and practitioners focus TOO much on the POWER aspect and completely ignore the CAPACITY aspect.
And it’s true that many sports do have an emphasis on Alactic power as the main requirement for the sport.
However, while focusing on maximum alactic power can produce intense energy for brief periods, training for max power without capacity does not give a high ability to sustain repeated bursts of that kind of power.
Think about an Olympic weightlifter: the athlete can push out a heavy one rep lift but then needs to recover for long periods of time (at least 3 minutes) before they can reproduce a similar effort near their maximum, which is often LESS with each effort.
This is an example of an athlete trained for Alactic Power without training for Alactic Capacity.
Athletes that have trained for both Alactic Power and for Alactic Capacity, on the other hand, can produce a lot of power for brief periods of time, but also do so repetitively with short breaks in between.
An athlete that fits this would include SOME baseball pitchers – the ones that stay pitching for many innings. Such pitchers have to throw fastpitch using near-maximum effort, but must be able to do so over and over and over.
Another sport that emphasizes Alactic Power and Capacity is football.
Linebackers, for example, give an all-out explosive burst that lasts between 3 to 8 seconds.These athletes train for Alactic power.
More power means they can push more weight (their body) over a distance in a shorter period of time.
This is often pure alactic power. However, you can’t underestimate the importance of capacity either.
They also need to be able to deliver that power over and over for the entire game period.
Anaerobic Capacity is Just as Important as Anaerobic Power
Anaerobic power can deliver results, but those results can be made more profound if the athlete is able to deliver near-maximum power repeatedly for a long duration RATHER than maximum power for a very short period of time then a sharp decrease in power.
Think about what sports would benefit from this? Let’s take boxing for example. A boxer that is able to deliver explosive flurries over and over with very little rest is a dangerous fighter indeed.
Let’s look at baseball. A pitcher who is able to pitch a very fast ball over and over with little fall off in speed for significant portions of the game is arguably a better pitcher than one who comes out and can deliver a few pitches at near record-breaking speed but who can’t sustain this level of power output for more than a few pitches. You could only use such a pitcher to either close a game or open a game, but not as the main pitcher.
And what about football. Take our linebacker for example.
The NFL puts a lot of stock in a linebacker’s 40 yard dash time — it’s used as one of the stats to determine a linebacker’s overall power ability.
If you take a look a the 2014 NFL combine times, the range is between 4.4 and 4.9 seconds for the 40-yard dash times.
Being able to run between 4.4 and 4.9-second sprint as a 250lb man is definitely a powerful advantage in football and an indication of some seriously developed anaerobic systems in the power area.
But, what happens if there is a lack of CAPACITY to repeat this power over and over?
4.4 seconds is great, but if after 20 minutes of game time that 4.4 seconds may become a 6-second sprint; after 35 minutes a 7-second sprint.
A linebacker that can sprint 4.4 seconds only a few times before fatiguing and slowing down is not that useful as a player with less alactic power but more alactic capacity — one who can run a 4.9 but after 35 minutes of play, can consistently run a 5.5 for the reminder of the game?
Arguably this athlete will have a better overall performance during the game.
There’s been a lot of backlash against the old school aerobic training with many a coach recommending ‘new’ training protocols that toss out aerobic training for alactic training (sprints, circuits, etc).
The reason is that developing aerobic pathways leads to a reduction of maximum anaerobic power output.
Basically, if you train too much aerobically, your maximum anaerobic power output declines.
So aerobic training is bad for sports that require aerobic power, right?
The Benefit of Aerobic Training for Anaerobic Power: Increased Capacity
The problem though is that many people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.
While there may be a reduction of anaerobic power if you train aerobically, there is an increase in anaerobic capacity due to the increase in aerobic efficiency.
This means you can sustain power outputs far longer with less recovery times over and over IF you train your aerobic system because it increases your overall anaerobic capacity (removes the waste products from your muscle tissue).
Back to the boxer analogy. Would you rather have an athlete who has more one off explosive power combos but can only sustain a few long flurries before gassing out, or would you rather have the boxer be able to throw slightly less powerful flurries, but be able to do so over and over for 12 rounds?
Anaerobic Capacity then is just as important as Anaerobic Power for many sports — even those sports you might consider anaerobically driven — and it the development of this that is sadly neglected by many athletes.
When you take a look at many sports, you’ll actually see the athlete is only utilizing anaerobic energy a small percentage of the time with aerobic energy powering the majority of the athlete’s activities.
So then, having a shitty aerobic system will hurt your aerobic performance.
There’s another reason as well.
Most sports require a heavy contribution from the aerobic system, even though the sport may be anaerobic in nature.
That means a significant amount of the energy produced for the vast majority of the activity duration is aerobic. And if this is the case, you want that system to be as efficient as it can be.Better aerobic metabolism means more efficient energy supply and utilization of oxygen when in aerobic metabolism.
So not only does aerobic training increase your aerobic fitness but also improves anaerobic capacity as well.
Which takes us to the question: how do you improve your aerobic pathways and unlock more Anaerobic (explosive power) Capacity?
As you might guess the answer lies in training aerobically and developing a strong aerobic base — by training specifically to improve capacity.
And, in a few days, I’ll tell you exactly how.
If you are interested in ramping up your fitness to a new level, then read our Ultimate Guide on How to Dramatically Improve Your Aerobic Fitness.